Despite now (in)famous hopes that it would ‘be over by Christmas’ in Summer 2020, as we grapple with what it means to live with the COVID-19 virus in the UK almost two years on we have to wonder; how have our drinking practices changed during extended periods of lockdown? When new variants, for example Omicron, lead to fresh calls for restrictions, could some of these changes with our relationship with alcohol continue even further into the future than we imagined? In December, hardy New Year’s Eve revellers braved the cold to continue to drink, socialise and party in bars, pubs and clubs. Perhaps, to the casual onlooker, it all looked like ‘business as usual’. But as a new wave of the virus swept the UK, we found ourselves asking: could the party be over (again)?

The sudden shut-down of the hospitality industry during 2020 gave rise to unprecedented changes in how the UK population socialises. Whilst we should not ignore the fact that much alcohol consumption already took place at home before the pandemic, those who did any or all of their drinking or socialising in licensed venues potentially experienced significant transitions in terms of how, where and how much they might drink under COVID. From full lockdown to the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme encouraging people back out and into hospitality settings, the last few years have seen a rollercoaster of regulation and restriction around public drinking. We’ve also grappled with a series of seemingly arbitrary and at times bizarre ‘rules’ in this area (who could forget the debates gripping the nation around whether a scotch egg constitutes a substantial meal?). And these discussions continued; from the possibility of vaccine passports to the closure of nightclubs, the virus continued to impact upon the way we consume alcohol and frame debates around personal freedoms, choice, leisure and the Night Time Economy. Where lockdown restrictions eased, some people werealso appeared hesitant to go out as they had done before – do pubs and bars even seem like the same places they did in the pre-pandemic era?

Whilst some media attention and public discussion quickly centred around questions of whether people were drinking more than usual during the pandemic, researchers are interested not just in how much people have been drinking during the pandemic but also the ‘why’ behind any changes in our drinking practices. Our own recent research explored this very topic. Drawing on individual and household interviews with UK drinkers conducted between the first and second 2020 UK lockdowns, we turned our attention to the question ‘what factors might encourage or restrain drinking – particularly in the home setting – during the pandemic?’. Our thinking had been that drinkers would drink that bit less (maybe quite a lot less) mainly because they did not have those opportunities to access licensed venues , nor those opportunities to socialise with friends and other people they might normally drink with. On top of that, we also wondered whether the lockdowns would have made it harder to purchase alcohol for home consumption, particularly during the ‘stricter’ phases of lockdown when even opportunities to get out of the house were fairly limited.

However, we found that alcohol remained readily available and highly accessible during the initial lockdown period, with participants making use of online shopping opportunities (including specialist websites) to ensure a well-stocked booze cupboard. This meant for some participants that more alcohol than usual was available in the home, for example Charlotte (43) noted that her husband had become much more conscious of ensuring there was beer available at home during lockdown. This availability of alcohol could lead to the process of what we might call ‘drinking without thinking’. This captures the almost subconscious habits that some of our participants reported during the early lockdowns, such as ‘grabbing a beer’ at the end of the working day to try to provide a sense of routine:

Y’know prior to lockdown would’ve practically not been anything… only time I had wine in the house was to cook with (laughs) so… it’s very much different now, I think it might have been yesterday, I finished work up in the office, went downstairs, looked in the fridge opened a beer… completely subconsciously… it’s become routine and subconscious now to have a drink when I finish work at home (Kriss, 32)

We also found that the home may lack some of the features that restrain drinking which we encounter in pub and bar settings. This might sound counter-intuitive; surely a key feature of drinking establishments is to encourage us to drink without restraint (with drinking promotions and ‘happy hours’ being an obvious example, but also other elements such as atmosphere and music potentially playing a role)? Whilst this may be the case, drinking in licensed venues may also be curtailed or controlled in particular ways. Of course this includes more obvious measures such as a refusal to serve customers who are too visibly intoxicated, but our participants also mentioned ‘softer’ practices that might police their behaviour. For example, participant Kriss (aged 32) talked about not wanting to be seen as too drunk in front of others, and found his drinking rate was slowed by socialising and mingling with different people in the pub. Rachel (aged 52) also talked about home drinking being more ‘accessible’ as when at home you do not have to face the ordeal of the queue at the bar or wait for friends to finish to ‘get a round in’:

It’s more accessible in a way cos you’re not having to pay for it, not having to go to the bar, not having to wait… You can go at your own pace rather than people around you (Rachel, 52)

Again the notion of ‘drinking without thinking’ and easily topping up a glass of wine or grabbing a fresh beer has relevance here, with participants feeling less restrained in terms of being able to ‘go at (their) own pace’ or top up their drinks more easily and without conscious thought or reflection on how much alcohol they had already consumed. Additionally, the removal of many social and work obligations during the pandemic (including commuting) meant that participants might be less concerned about the implications of drinking that bit more (e.g. increased risk of a hangover the next day).

In summary, alcohol was readily available during the Spring 2020 lockdowns and some of our participants did experience some increases in their consumption as they were able to purchase and consume alcohol with very little constraint. Having said this, consumption did not universally increase and many of our participants experienced fluctuations and variation in their drinking during this period (and actually for some individuals, drinking practices did not really change much at all). Drinking practices during the pandemic era – a time of unprecedented social change – were complex and nuanced, a trend that is likely to continue as we wrestle with ‘the new normal’.

Dr Emily Nicholls is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York and Dr Dom Conroy is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at London Metropolitan University, UK.

Twitter:  @DrEmilyNicholls and @dom_conroy